Luis Cortés: Esperanza builds an ‘opportunity community’ for Latinos in Philadelphia

Students work in a lab at an Esperanza school in the Hunting Park area of Philadelphia. The organization insists on having new, modern facilities to help send a message that all people deserve the same opportunities to thrive and succeed.

Photos courtesy of Esperanza

Institution building is key to developing a new generation of leaders, says the founder and CEO of one of the nation’s largest Hispanic-serving faith-based nonprofits.

Don’t tell the Rev. Luis Cortés that Esperanza is something special.

It is, of course. And he appreciates the compliment. But he doesn’t think that an institution like Esperanza, which serves the Latino community in North Philadelphia, should be special.

“A place like Esperanza should be normative. We have 30 neighborhoods in the city; there should be 30 Esperanzas,” he said. “There should be 30 places where you can participate in the arts, where you can learn about and play music, where you can experience different forms of dance, where you can learn photography, where you can learn how to add and subtract.”

Just because people are poor doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the same things that everyone needs for a good life, he said.

Founded in 1987, Esperanza seeks to help the residents of Hunting Park, a majority-Latino neighborhood, have the same opportunities that other residents of the city enjoy. It focuses on education and economic development, including affordable housing, schools, housing counseling, immigration legal services, workforce development, youth leader training, and a fully accredited branch campus, Esperanza College of Eastern University.

The organization — its name means “hope” in Spanish — has more than 600 employees and a budget of more than $70 million and is a model for other institutions across the country.

Cortés, who is a Baptist pastor, worked with Hispanic Clergy of Philadelphia to found Esperanza. He earned an M.Div. at Union Theological Seminary and a master’s degree in economic development from Southern New Hampshire University. 

Rev Cortes
The Rev. Luis Cortés

In this interview, he talks to Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about why he founded Esperanza and why he thinks institution building is key to social change. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: You have a goal of building an “opportunity community.” What do you mean by that?

Luis Cortés: Our ontology has a set of concepts and categories, and the relationships between these are fundamental. There is a Creator, and there are the created. Those are givens, as fact. So we start there. The other thing that’s given, as fact, is that all human beings are equal in God’s eyes.

If you believe that, then you must believe that we should try to provide a great opportunity for everyone to become that which God would have them become. To be in service to humanity is to assist everyone to develop to their highest potential. That’s our modus operandi.

This understanding then is followed by the question, what do you do with the poor? The mission work is to create a place where you provide all residents the opportunity to live a quality life. What must you provide for people to reach their ultimate goals, to be able to serve humanity better despite their economic situation and to have them feel they have a good quality of life?

This is what becomes an opportunity community, the development of all things needed for individuals to reach their potential. As an example, we built a theater and we have cultural pieces, like teaching dance, teaching music, all from a cultural perspective.

students practicing music
Students learn music, dance and other disciplines at Esperanza schools, which also bring in the top arts organizations in the city to perform and teach.

All people come from and have a culture. We have a language, we have music, and for Latines, we are in exile — we’re away from where our culture was based.

What do we do to create an opportunity community — a community that understands your class and your culture and helps you build so that you can have a great life staying here in this neighborhood or you can use what you learn here and have a great life elsewhere?

F&L: How did Esperanza begin?

LC: I was the founder of Hispanic Clergy of Philadelphia in 1981, an outgrowth of developing a field education system for Latine students at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was about 26 clergy from about 18 different denominational entities.

These clergy were all in the same Philadelphia neighborhood, and they had never really worked together until we organized as a field education consortium. As a group of clergy, when we would get together, like any group of highly motivated concerned citizens, we inevitably become active on challenging issues of the day.

We were getting together to discuss field education, quite mundane. And then all of a sudden, conversations shifted to, “They shot a guy here last week” or, “The police did or didn’t perform,” and we just moved in the direction of the conversations and became a civil rights organization.

During that time, Pew Charitable Trusts did a study on religious institutions, and as a result, we got funded for three years to start Esperanza and to work in clergy education. The clergy hired me to do it, with the mandate to do the clergy education and create a proactive organization, Esperanza.

In the beginning, the more we helped an individual family, the more it hurt the local church. As we helped individuals, the family moved farther away from their church, eventually joining a suburban congregation.

What we learned as a group was, it doesn’t matter if our people leave to improve their lot, as long as we create an institution that remains to assist those that stay or can’t get out.

Our philosophy became that we will work together to create Hispanic-owned-and-operated institutions. We began working on that theory of institution building where we could control the mission and agenda of our community, as opposed to the present-day external control.

We as Hispanic people in this nation have never focused on this on a large scale. We’ve never created our own institutions. What we do is we assume that we will inherit the institutions of America as we become a larger part of America. But that is not how it works. The institutions that provide for and control our neighborhoods are all managed externally: police, fire, schools, streets, most businesses.

So we decided we only wanted to create Hispanic-owned-and-operated institutions. We had enough Hispanic institutions that were doing social service, so we decided to not compete with our follow Latine agencies. We focused on education and economic development.

We wanted to do education because education is the first step and we understand institution-building as economic development.

When we first got started, it was like, “How do we help people?” Now it’s, “How do we help our institutions help people?”

F&L: How did you come to appreciate institutions in this time when there’s a lot of cynicism, a lot of distrust, a lot of anger around institutions?

LC: Since our nation’s beginning, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that it is associations and the institutions that they create that make Americas unique.

We’ve got to think positive. We serve our communities and our neighbors. So if everybody would do as well as they can at their community-serving job, whatever that is, we should be headed to a better place.

As the religious population lessens, there will have to be alternative institutions that defend the rights of the poor. Historically, the church has responded to the poor first through charity, then the development of institutions like hospitals or schools. Advocating to change unjust laws.

If that faith role dwindles, we have to figure out who or what replaces that. I see that as a major problem for the future.

F&L: In addition to the institutions, you are making change in individuals. The documentary “Esperanza: Hope for Our Cities,” for example, shows that commitment. Why do you stress self-belief, grit and confidence?

LC: I went to public school in Spanish Harlem. When I got to elementary school, they said to me, “You can be president of the United States.” And I looked around, and it’s old, it’s decrepit, it’s dirty, it’s outdated, and I’m like, “Nah, no way.”

For many people, it’s hard to self-motivate if you don’t see anyone else around you achieve success. We need our youth to “make it.” Last year, in our graduating high school class, we had MIT, two people at Carnegie Mellon, and one girl went to Wellesley, among a plethora of state colleges and universities. It is now normative.

Part of our model is we must have modern equipment. The space must be super clean. Visitors come to our place and they say, “Wow, this is so clean.” It’s a compliment. I understand. But it also says something about their expectation.

When I’m told, “Wow, this place is clean. This lab is so modern,” what are they saying? That in their preconception of economic poverty, they did not expect a first-class lab here. They did not expect, because of the economics, this place to be spotless. They do not expect your top five students to go to those schools, and you have one of the top college-graduating high schools for Hispanics. They do not expect that.

Whatever prejudice they brought in begins to be challenged, right? It’s like — look at this: MIT, Harvard, Penn. When they see that, they say, “Something special is happening.”

While there may be truth to that, it’s only special because other people won’t do it. Our team at Esperanza figured out how to do it, creating a culture of opportunity.

I believe there’s nothing that we can’t do. It’s just about how much time you have and what are your priorities. People ask me about this all the time — “How did you do it?”

Well, you find the need and fill it. And once you fill it, create an institution behind it, then find the next need and fill it. And once you fill it, create an institution that survives until it can thrive.

F&L: You mentioned the cleanliness, and you also insist on giving Esperanza’s students and other participants the best in other ways. Why is that important?

LC: We start with the concept that we should have what any community has. If you look at most communities and the arts, for example, they have access to experiences and ways to learn; they have ways to experience music, acting, dance and painting or visual. We have to create the avenues.

First we got the theater, and then through the theater, we do dance. But we also brought the best of the region. So the Philadelphia Orchestra plays at our theater; Opera Philadelphia sings in our theater; the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra plays at our theater; Philadanco and the Philadelphia Ballet dance in our theater.

We communicated to these arts institutions, “When you come to our neighborhood, it has to be your A team.” Normally when they go to a community, they send the B and C team so they can work and practice as they serve a neighborhood project. At Esperanza, if the A team ain’t coming, you don’t come.

The artistic talent also has to give time during the week to work with students. Not just Esperanza schools, but there are about 10,000 public school children in our neighborhood. They do workshops and our community youth interact with them. After their theatrical performance, they sit and answer audience questions for 15 minutes. We have found the arts groups love these interactions as much as our residents do.

F&L: You also work on gentrification. How much of an issue is that for you?

LC: The bottom line is that urban communities near centers of our American cities where working-class Spanish-speaking people live are being dismantled by an upper middle class and above who wants their land and their housing so they can capitalize economically and culturally. It is happening everywhere.

Cities are happy with the gentrification or displacement of our neighborhoods, because it means a better tax base for the city. So when the city gains, the economically disadvantaged lose. That’s a constant struggle.

We need to build up equity in Black and brown communities. The No. 1 equity builder in Black and brown communities is not giant companies; it’s mom-and-pop commercial shops and home ownership. What we can show is, as we lose the housing, these mom-and-pop shops are destroyed.

So, the real question is, do we really want to help Black and brown people, or are we just saying we do while we actually cash in on their assets?

In America, they’re taking our neighborhoods under the guise of mixed income communities. In St. Louis, Black neighborhoods are being bought up by universities. West Philadelphia, it’s universities and science centers. North Philadelphia, it’s another university and the corporate needs. So they push people out of their long serving neighborhoods.

Today, young professionals don’t want to spend money on a car to live in the suburbs. They prefer to live in the city, not have a car. They’ll just Uber and use the money saved on transportation for restaurants and recreation, which is fine. But the economic burden falls on the economically disadvantaged, who need to move farther away to more expensive housing, losing the businesses that cater to their needs.

It’s interesting that progressive communities are the ones that gentrify Black and brown neighborhoods. It’s not the conservatives. Conservatives avoid minority communities, while progressives enjoy moving into a culturally mixed neighborhood until they extinct the original ethnic group that was there.

Progressives move in during their early professional career, purchase housing cheaply, live there for five years and make six figures on their “investment.”

It’s a real interesting dynamic where we fight the conservatives on one side and we have to fight the progressives on the other. They do have one thing in common: they’re white.

The role of the church should be different. How do we talk to progressives to say, “Listen, I know you can make money by moving into my neighborhood, but you’re hurting us. How do we really build a mixed income community?”

There’s a dynamic that’s happening in our country. San Bernardino, Phoenix, Calle Ocho in Miami, San Antonio, Philadelphia. Chicago, with three distinct Hispanic neighborhoods. They’re all under the same pressure.

F&L: How do you keep from being overwhelmed when everything you describe is extremely complex? It’s difficult. Yet almost 40 years later, you’re still hopeful.

LC: I am a minister. I believe in God. And in the end, we are all called to serve others. Despite all the problems, our job is to persevere and pursue. And persistence is the name of the game.

When we first got started, it was like, “How do we help people?” Now it’s, “How do we help our institutions help people?”